How Ruthie Ended the War: Chapter One
In which we are introduced to our hero
This is an ongoing serialization of an unfinished novel I wrote and Carson illustrated in 2001. New chapters will be published every Friday at 10 a.m.
Listen: If you were a bored child and you hated your parents, it is conceivable that you could walk out your front door and walk to the road and leave your parents as they snored on their pillows beneath their thistledown quilts and linen bedsheets. And there on the road you might wait for a passing traveler who would see you sitting on the side of road in your nightie and slippers and take pity on you and take you on the back of his burro and lead you away from your parent’s quiet sleeping home. And you might travel for a few miles until you reached the crossroads where the traveler says to you that this is as far as he can take you and there you might wait until a huddled and ragged caravan of tinkers’ wagons might lumber up the road towards you. And the leader of the gypsy convoy might take you on his arm and sing a song to you in a strange language and toss you into the back of his wagon with his trinkets and beads. And then you would lay on your back and listen to the creak of the wooden wheels against the earthen highway and think about how much you do not miss your parents or your nagging priggish sister or your tousled bruising brother and their constant shrill peal of voices telling you to do this and do that and why can’t you just do something and not be always laying about and dreaming. And you might fall into heavy slumber with these thoughts rolling in your head and be awoken by the roar of a train whistle and look around you to find that you have been left on the coal cart of a northbound locomotive traveling fleetly into the black evening. And there you would sit for hour upon hour as you felt the streaming breeze against your cheek grow colder and colder and there you would watch the bright white pinpricks of stars against the sky turn to thick flakes of snow until the night becomes nearly as white as it is black and the landscape surrounding you all blanketed by snow and the dull crack of rifles and mortar shells from a distant war sounding, so soft and faraway. And if then you waited until the train came to a complaining creaking stop you would look over the railing of your coal cart. Then and only then would you see, plainly, standing sentinel among a throng of reindeer and llamas, the fantastic and opulent winter chateau of a certain M. Baumbaum, a respected tea merchant, and his daughter, the heroine of this story, Ruthie Baumbaum.
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On that particular midwinter evening, warm within the walls of that particular chateau, Ruthie was lying on the ornate Persian rug that covered the floor of her father’s study, staring out the great French windows and watching the gentle fall of the snow against the pane. Her bearded father sat at his desk, poring over the spreadsheets from the month’s business transactions, his monocle perched in his left eye. Every few moments he would let out an audible hrrmph when he caught an illegible figure or an incorrect calculation and would diligently erase the offending mistake and re-enter it in his own impeccable hand. From beyond the windows, Ruthie could barely make out the milling herd of the animals in the pasture and the distant whistle of a passing train sounding in the dark. She turned to her father who was busy sharpening his pencil with a small penknife.
“Papa?” she said.
“Yes, Ruthie,” her father replied, letting his monocle fall from his face to hang from the pocket of his vest by the chain.
“When will you read me my story?”
“Soon, Ruthie, soon.”
“Masha will soon be done with the washing up, and she’ll be very angry if I’m not ready for bed,” Ruthie said, sitting up. She found her foot had fallen asleep in her indolence and began massaging it.
“Yes, Ruthie.” Her father held the pencil up in the light to judge its sharpness and, satisfied, set it down on the desk. Arduously, he pushed the chair away from his desk and pulled his beamy body up from its arms and walked to where his daughter sat. “And what story would you like to hear?”
“A scary one.”
“A scary one? It would surely give you nightmares.”
“A sad one, then.”
“A sad one? It is not wise to fall asleep with tear-wet eyes.”
“An exciting one, then.”
“Ah, an exciting one. But ma petite vache, I am afraid you would never get to sleep.”
“But what other sorts of stories are there?” complained Ruthie, her arms crossed in frustration.
“There are many, many other stories that can be told,” her father said, kneeling down next to her and lightly laying a strand of her tawny hair behind her ear, “But none that would leave you in an appropriate way to go to bed tonight. No, in fact, tonight I shall read to you from my ledger.” He abruptly stood up and, walking to his desk, grabbed the thick, leather-bound tome that lay there and began reading loudly in a husky and dramatic voice: “Thursday, the nineteenth of February. Purchased: seventy-five bushels of osmanthus petal bought at 15 rubles a kilo. Fifty bushels of hibiscus, wormwood, lemongrass, bought individually at 35 rubles a kilo, shipped same day from Morocco. . .”
Ruthie groaned and rolled her eyes. “This story should certainly put me to sleep.”
Her father paused from his reading, saying “This, my dear, was my intention. Now if you would only wait until we arrive at the 27th of February, I think you will find that things pick up quite a bit.” He began thumbing through the pages. “Here it is,” he said, and continued reading. “Friday, the 27th of February. Purchased: 75 bushels of…”
He was interrupted by a loud knock at the door. “Sir!” came the voice of Masha, the family’s maid, through the door, “Someone is here! A soldier! He’s very ill!”
Startled, M. Baumbaum quickly placed the ledger back on his deck and rushed toward the door, which opened violently before he could reach it. In a great tangle of confusion, Masha, a pale aproned girl, came spilling through the vestibule, half supporting a gaunt young gentleman in distressed fatigues, his body covered in massive flakes of snow, his hair frozen in matted clumps, his lips and cheeks a translucent blue from the cold. Both figures stumbled, flailing, into the center of the room until the weight of the soldier, his haggard frame buckling, carried both he and Masha down to the floor in a pile. Masha let out a yelp and jumped up, running towards M. Baumbaum in a fright. “It’s okay,” Baumbaum consoled, the maid trembling in his arms. He gently pried Masha’s arms from his shoulders and knelt down beside the supine soldier, saying, “He must have come from the front, though I have no idea how he made it this far.” He placed his index and middle finger against the soldier’s throat, feeling the rapid and unsteady beat of his pulse. “He still lives. Masha, fetch a basin of hot water and as many warm blankets as you can possibly find. Ruthie, help her to carry them.” He looked down at his daughter and nodded calmly.
“It seems as if you may have your story after all,” said her father.
The soldier, swaddled in a mass of patchwork blankets culled from practically every guestroom chest in the east wing, sat in Baumbaum’s great chair in the study before a roaring fireplace, his feet soaking in a steaming basin of water. In his hand he tenuously supported a small teacup filled with hot lemon water and brandy. He did not speak to his guardians save for a few grunts of appreciation with every treatment he was given. Ruthie resumed her position, sitting cross-legged on the Persian rug, staring intently at their battered and frostbitten refugee, wondering at his stoic silence as he gazed into the flames of the hearth. Her father stood at the mantel, patiently winding his pocket watch, and, watching the soldier out of the corner of his eye, waited for the stranger to speak. Masha entered the room, carrying a tray of bread and a large, covered bowl of soup. M. Baumbaum nodded and took the tray from her, setting it down beside the soldier on a small table. “Can you eat?” he asked the soldier. The soldier murmured a yes and looked at the aged gentleman before him, his eyes momentarily diverted from the fire, “I think I can.”
“Very good,” said M. Baumbaum, “Try this. It will warm your innards.” He carefully lifted the silver ladle from the bowl and carried it to the soldier’s mouth, letting the infirm young man sip at its contents slowly. The ladle emptied, he again dipped it into the bowl, this time venturing a question to the soldier as he fed him: “I find it remarkable that you should have journeyed all this way from the front. It must have taken days of travel.”
The soldier paused in his eating. “I did not come from the front,” he said, staring back at the fireplace. He continued to sip at the ladle.
Baumbaum attempted to appear nonplussed. “Then where did you come from? You did not desert, did you?”
The soldier quickly looked back at Baumbaum, a steely defiance in his eye. “I did not desert. I did what I felt was best.” With a start he tersely nodded the ladle away from his face. “You do not know, sir…you cannot know, sir…the conditions with which I was faced…we all were faced.” Here he paused and stared intently at the fire. “It was horrible,” he said, quietly. He spoke with such gravity that Ruthie’s heart trembled at the voice.
Baumbaum shook his head and spoke gently to the agitated figure sitting beneath the pile of blankets, “Relax, sir. Try not to perturb yourself. You must eat.” The soldier took a deep, quaking breath, nodded, and once again resumed eating.
When he had finished, and the emptied bowl sat on the table, the soldier shifted in the chair and rubbed his thawing feet together in the basin. The attentive Masha carried the kettle from over the hearth and replenished the water at the soldier’s feet and gave a warm-up to his cup of lemon water while the master Baumbaum pulled the decanter from the mantle and poured a snifter of brandy for himself and the soldier. The soldier smiled at them both weakly and said, “I cannot thank you enough. I have not received such hospitality in weeks. The countryside is ever guarded these days against strange travelers and I have had many doors slammed in my face. I have seen neither hide nor hair of my own comrades at arms—all the outposts on the northern frontier have been either abandoned or destroyed completely—and I was becoming certain of my own demise and the failure of the endeavor that I was instructed to undertake. It is of the utmost importance that the information I carry be delivered to my betters.”
“But where have you come from?” inquired M. Baumbaum, “And how is it that you have seen the northern frontier when the outposts of which you speak have been abandoned for years? This is most irregular.”
The soldier nodded and took a sip of his brandy. “My history is horrible, sir. Truly horrible.” His gaze wandered over to Ruthie who sat mesmerized on the rug, absorbing every word the soldier spoke. “And one that is perhaps not appropriate for the sensibilities of a young girl.”
Master Baumbaum looked over at his daughter, who in turn looked back at him imploringly. He shook his head. “Masha, please take Ruthie to bed. Ruthie, it is well past your bedtime. Your mother, were she alive, would have my skull.”
“But Papa!” Ruthie exclaimed.
“Now, Ruthie.” Baumbaum replied, sternly.
“C’mon, mam’selle,” said Masha, pulling her up from the floor, “Attend to your father’s wishes. You have a long day tomorrow.” And, with a professional aplomb, the governess took her charge by the ear and led her out of the study and up the great stairs to her room.